Healthy prenatal poses.
Regular exercise at a moderate intensity is especially important for prenatal women (and prenatal trans guys).
Exercise can help to decrease uncomfortable symptoms during pregnancy and increase muscular strength to facilitate delivery. It not only helps you prepare for giving birth, it also helps your baby train for its big day! Studies have shown that exercise at a moderate intensity improves the fetus’s heart-rate response during delivery. As babies are gradually exposed in the womb to the cardiovascular changes you experience while exercising, they are more prepared to handle an increased heart rate during delivery.
Although exercise is beneficial for all, precautions must be taken before engaging in a program. Start by consulting with your doctor or midwife. Review absolute and relative contraindications (reasons you should not exercise, or warning signs to stop exercising). After your first trimester, avoid any exercise that involves lying on your back, which decreases blood flow to the fetus.
Now, let’s get down to some exercises as well as a few well-timed stretches!
As abdominal muscles stretch to accommodate the growing fetus, the rectus abdominus muscles may develop a pronounced separation, called a diastasis recti. To strengthen abdominal muscles, avoid sit-ups or crunches; instead, focus on core-strengthening exercises, such as plank hold, mason twist or the boat pose.
From a seated position, bring your legs up to a 45-degree angle with your torso, balance on your tailbone and put your arms out to your sides for balance. Tighten your abdominals and maintain a straight spine throughout the hold, breathing steadily. Start with a five-second hold and increase to 10 seconds.
*Beginners: start by bending your knees, so that your calves are parallel to the floor. For a more advanced variation, straighten your legs (you may need to spread your legs into a V-shape in later stages of pregnancy).
The weight of an enlarged uterus in addition to weak abdominal muscles can cause the pelvis to rotate forward, creating a more pronounced curvature in your lower back. A combination of lower-back strengthening and stretching which can be found in the Bird-dog, may help to alleviate lower-back strain.
Kneel on the floor with hands firmly placed about shoulder width apart in front of you. Brace your abdominal muscles throughout the exercise to avoid arching your lower back. Start by lifting one hand and the opposite knee just clear of the floor while balancing on the other hand and knee. Slowly try to extend your opposite arm and leg straight out and raise up until both limbs are even with your back. Practice slow and controlled lifts with holds at the highest range.
*Repetitions: start with a five-second hold and increase to 20 seconds, depending on level of difficulty. Repeat 12 times for two sets.
Lie on your back (only for those of you in your first trimester), and bring your left knee up and across to your right hip. Hold your knee down on the floor with your right hand. Slowly extend your left arm to your left side and hold for 40 seconds. Repeat the stretch on the opposite side and breathe throughout the hold.
Enlarged breasts place significant strain on your upper shoulders and increase tightness in your pectoral muscles. To reduce neck and shoulder strain, try push-ups and row variations.
Use a heavy bench or a chair that is secured against the wall for this push-up; this will integrate your core muscles more than a knee push-up. Get into plank position, with your hands on the edge of the bench and under your shoulders. Be sure to contract your abdominal muscles and try to keep your hips in line with your shoulders and feet. Inhale as you lower your body closer to the bench. Keep your elbows in line with your shoulders, so that your upper arms form a 45-degree angle when your torso is in the bottom position. Exhale as you push back to the starting position.
In a seated position, secure a resistance band (around a post etc.) in front of you for tension. Extend your arms in front of you while your back is straight and shoulders square. Tuck your elbows close to your sides as you pull the band in to each side of your torso, squeezing your shoulder blades back and together. Pause, then slowly return to start.
*Variations, try sitting on a bosu ball or stability ball to engage your core strength. Ask a friend partner to hold or secure the elastic band if you don’t have another way to do so.
Pectoral muscle stretch (chest):
Start by facing a wall. Slide one arm straight up until it is level with your shoulder. Slowly increase the stretch by turning your torso in the opposite direction and hold for 35 to 40 seconds, breathing deeply throughout.
An increase of relaxing hormones allows hips to broaden in preparation for labor, but it also allows more joint laxity. As a result, weak gluteal muscles may cause a pronounced “pregnancy waddle,” putting strain on the hip and knee joints. To stretch gluteus and abductors muscles (aka butt and outer thighs), try some external hip rotations.
External hip rotation (aka: Butterfly and Bound Angle Pose) :
While sitting on the floor, bend both the knees and bring the soles of the feet together. Hold both feet with your hands and place your elbows on your thighs. Try to avoid raising your heels. Sit up tall, and maintain a straight line from your neck down to lower back. Inhale deeply and press both thighs downward with your elbows then exhale while holding the stretch.
To facilitate labor, strengthening abdominal and hip abductor muscles will help in pushing and in positioning during delivery. Core strengthening exercises can be combined with hip abduction such as side lying leg raises. Avoid any exercise if heartburn intensifies or discomfort increases pubic area (likely due to increased separation of pubis symphis in preparation for delivery).
Side lying leg raises:
Lie on your side and line up your shoulders and hips so they are stacked on top of one another. You can position yourself against a wall to avoid twisting backward. Either bend the elbow of your bottom hand and rest your head on top, or lie all the way down. Your legs and feet should be slightly out ahead of you to protect the back, and the knees should remain slightly bent.
Squeeze your glutes (butt cheeks) to maximize the effort of the exercise. Exhale and lift your leg a few inches above the opposite leg. Inhale and lower slowly back down. Try to point your toes slightly down toward the floor as you lift and lower the leg to activate deeper muscles in your glutes. To increase the effort, try to hold your leg up for 5 seconds each repetition.
Finding the right exercise intensity is extremely important for expecting mothers. Avoid exercising at a strenuous level; you should be able to have a comfortable conversation at any point during the exercise. Easy to moderate exercise for 30 minutes is recommended three to five times per week at all stages of pregnancy. Longer warm-ups and cool-downs with stretching is highly recommended to gradually prepare your body and the baby for exercise. As mentioned before, start by consulting with your doctor or midwife before trying any of these exercises.
Intensity levels for age groups
Under 20 years – Heart rate: 140–155 beats per minute
20–29 years – Heart Rate: 135–150 beats per minute
30+ years – Heart Rate: 130–145 beats per minute
Cortney Benedict and Suzanna Dreifelds are a dynamic duo of super-motivated fitness trainers. They love what they do and want to help motivate people to love fitness, too!
* This column was written by Cortney Benedict.
After years of working as a recreation therapist at Bloorview Kids Rehab and Wheelchair Sports, Cortney has decided to seek new challenges as a post-rehab trainer. As a resistance training specialist, Cortney pays special attention to injury prevention and injury recovery. Certified in pre- and post-natal fitness, Cortney has enjoyed working with families and families-to-be to ensure that not only are moms healthy but their babies are, too. Cortney has set up her practice at Beaches Health Group in Toronto. In her free time, you will find Cortney coaching adapted skiing, playing hockey and long-distance running.